City Government browsing by tag


Book Review – “Nimby Wars: The Politics of Land Use”

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

When I began my intentions were to bring you new ideas in planning and also get my name out there.  I also joined Twitter (@pioneerplanning) and have found it to be a very positive move in generating interest in this blog, as well as enhancing my job search and professional reach. I have also met some interesting people along the way including Patrick Fox of the Saint Consulting Group.  I commented several weeks ago on a post of his and after a little professional back and forth he asked if I would be interested in reviewing their upcoming book NIMBY Wars. To say the least I was flattered and took the invitation.  The book arrived several days later and I read it over the course of five days this past week.

Nimby Wars



NIMBY Wars is a swift read, clocking in at a quick 213 pages.  It’s available in hard cover only at a list price of $29.99, but available at for $23.99 ($21.59 for members).  The language used is technical but not overwhelming. It is evident that the authors tried spice up the wording to keep the reader interested, it worked for the most part, but a few times I found myself lost mid sentence wondering if they were talking about the same topic or person from earlier in the sentence.  If a young campaign manager, planner, or public advocate is interested in the political warfare that is zoning and land use approvals this book is a must read.  It gave me a good sense of the techniques and finesse needed to assure a positive result in the modern political realm of land use approvals.  However, I could not get over the sense that the book was one big advertisement for the Saint Consulting Group by touting all their successes.

Essential to reading NIMBY Wars is always remembering that “local land use approvals are subject to local politics” they are by definition political decisions and every decision by a planning board or elected council are therefore, politically motivated, and can be swayed by the public and influenced by constituents.  Remembering this throughout the book will help keep your mind on track.  Often I found my mind wandering and thinking that there had to be other types of decisions.  In some cases there are, but since the Saint Index, the Saint Consulting Group’s compilation of survey data compiled in 2005, showed Americans object to any new development and overwhelming 74% of the time (The Not In My Back Yard aka. NIMBY effect), getting the required votes for a new project requires more than a dazzling presentation or knowledgeable experts, it requires the help of political campaign managers, like the Saint Consulting Group.

The authors come across as battle tested veterans, and rightfully so, since the Saint Consulting Group has participated in over 1500 land use decisions in 44 states and 3 countries over the past 25 years.  However, one has to wonder if the reason land use decisions have become political is because of companies like Saint Consulting Group or if they are merely reacting to the changing political atmosphere.  In an email conversation with one of the authors, Patrick Fox, I learned that the Saint Consulting Group began as campaign managers for political offices and then branched into land use, which uses many of the same tactics.

I can say the book made me think differently about land use decisions, especially coming from my background as a public sector planner over the past 10 years.  I am one of the “influential planner(s)” who is “not necessarily [an] even-handed processor of land use applications” and  ”think they know better than the general public.”  Getting approval from planners and elected officials is not enough and most of the book discusses the need to win public support for, or in some cases against, a development or rezoning.  Few, if any, elected officials or planners would stand up to a room full of visibly angered constituents and vote for a project when it is clear they are against it.  This is where the Saint Consulting Group works and their methods and lessons learned are explained, though I would have liked a little more detail and data in the case studies.

This is not a How To book and shouldn’t be looked at for suggestions on how a firm could enter the land use politics arena.  It can, however, bring to light some examples and conditions that regularly arise when dealing with planning boards and city councils over development approvals.  The most important thing to remember is it is always political and to handle the situation correctly you want the right people in your corner.  Where we go from here even the author doesn’t know, but they expect more of the world to adopt Western style development approvals and the political fight to continue for quite some time, especially driven by the modern sense of entitlement that more and more residents are demonstrating.  The techniques and heads up knowledge explained in NIMBY Wars is invaluable for any developer, planner, or campaign manager making their first foray into the world of large scale development, redevelopment, or rezoning.


I would like to thank the Saint Consulting Group and specifically Seth Cargiuolo and Patrick Fox for this opportunity and answering my many questions along the way.  I hope this is the first of many book reviews and as I get more offers to review books or pick up ones I think will be interesting I will bring you more. Thank you for your support in reading this article and please take time to email me or leave a comment if you feel so moved.

Smaller Can Be Better – Smart Growth’s Other Half – Smart Decline

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009


To put it mildly for there to be winners in America there have to be losers.  For some cities to have rapid growth, growth that is almost too quick, there are cities that have rapid decline.  Many cities within the Rust Belt have been experiencing steady decline for more than 20 years.  Cities like Youngstown, Flint, Rochester, and even Richmond have been exploring the notion that they will not be growing over the foreseeable future.

I had the pleasure of virtually sitting in on an open discussion with Rutgers Bloustein School professor Frank Popper as he discussed Smart Decline, a term he and his wife coined in an article in Planning Magazine in 2002.  Smart Decline is still a new theory but it is beginning to pick up traction as some cities and regions realize they cannot continue to spend tax payer money and go into debt to promote growth and have been experiencing declining populations.

Derived from a German model of city management for dealing with the poorer more run down cities of the former Easter Bloc, Smart Decline deals with steps, both financial and physical, to deal with shrinking populations and tax bases.  Many cities first try to reinvent themselves to become more competitive in the knowledge economy.  But as mentioned in my post on Form Based Code, the knowledge economy will more than likely go where places are loved and beautiful.  Unfortunately, it is looked on as admitting defeat if a city does not reinvent itself and looks to contracting its services and control but planning on decline and meeting it head on is brave and should be applauded.

Smart Decline can take three different forms, Rural, Suburban, and Urban.  Rural Smart Decline can be seen by a return to either a natural state of land or a return to agriculture and livestock, especially native species.  Agriculture still provides some jobs and a small tax base but utilizes nearly no services.

Urban Smart Decline is evident in places like Flint, Michigan which was planning on growing to 350,000 in 1965, but topped out at almost 200,000, and now sits at 112,000, down 9% from the 2000 census.  In a city which has seen double digit decline for the past 40 years the city actually decided to help speed up the decline and get to a sustainable population.  A new Michigan Law permits the counties and cities to take over abandoned, foreclosed, and delinquent properties.  Flint’s solution is to concentrate any growth in a few neighborhoods and city centers and demolish and clear the properties in declining neighborhoods.  It is a tough pill to swallow, as these vacant homes get converted into greenspace and turned over to the local conservation land bank, but the city can save thousands of dollars a lot on garbage pick up and code enforcement.

The Suburban model, which hasn’t been identified in practice yet, is one of the toughest to implement.  The very nature of suburban sprawl has led most suburban cities and towns to rely on automobiles and when a place lacks a center but has decline everywhere where to you circle the wagons?  This is something I’m going to have to contemplate on more, and if an example of a place that could use Smart Decline Planning emerges or a government starts to take certain steps I will be glad to pass it on.

Ultimately the idea behind Smart Decline is finding the happy break even point for cities that have experienced decline.  Once that fiscally sustainable point is met a city can concentrate on where to go from there, but not until the bleeding has stopped, both fiscally and population.  A city should also be quick to realize they are in decline or at least a holding pattern, but they shouldn’t rely on census data for that.  Since the full count census only comes out every ten years decline could have been happening for five or more years prior.  This is where planners and city officials that have a good measure on the pulse of their communities will be able to see the first signs of decline.  From an increase in foreclosures, rental vacancies, and derelict properties a city should begin to do strategic planning for the health of the city.  If a city plans for the worst, but the decline doesn’t come as expected no one is worse off, better safe than sorry.  I believe Smart Decline is the marriage of proper strategic, contingency, and fiscal planning on the part of the community leaders and specific implementation tools and goals by planning departments.

As the United States continues into 2010 with a lingering recession many cities will either see decline increase or begin.  Cities such as Rochester, Buffalo, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Detroit should carefully consider Smart Decline for the immediate future, get back on their feet, pick up the pieces, and in a sense hit reset.  Likewise, cities such as Savannah, Atlanta, Nashville, Houston, Los Angeles and other Sun Belt cities should at least consider having a plan for decline just incase forecasts change and other unforeseen obstacles change the population shift in America.  Just consider Smart Decline another tool in a planner’s toolbox.

Recap: Form Based Code Workshop 9/22

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Smart Code Transect

I had the pleasure of attending a Form Based Code Workshop put on by Nathan Norris of Placemakers and sponsored by the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors.  The presentation started at 6PM and went a full two hours, but it flew by.  Mr. Norris had an informative and entertaining PowerPoint presentation and since there were only about 30 in attendance there was a good dialogue throughout and especially at the end.

I’m always looking for places to further my knowledge of cutting edge planning (pioneer planning), and I wasn’t disappointed. I am familiar with Form Based Codes and hope to work for a progressive government that has embraced the flexibility and control of their own destiny.  Mr. Norris’ presentation gave me some more facts and real life examples to check out and familiarize myself with. Though the presentation was geared toward Mount Pleasant last night, Form Based Codes can be used anywhere.  What amazed me the most is the current leader in the public sector for Form Based Code is Montgomery, Alabama. Nathan Norris, who hails from a town near Montgomery, explained that, “even a city that hasn’t done much planning for the past 40 years was able to implement Form Based Code and make it mandatory in their downtown in just a few years process.”

Form Based Code is based on the 10 Principals of Smart Growth:

  1. Create distinctive places
  2. Promote walkable design
  3. Block size is important (*Most important)
  4. There needs to be a variety of transportation choices
  5. Development needs to be directed to existing places
  6. An appropriate mix of uses should be encouraged
  7. A wide range of housing options and affordabilities
  8. Compact design
  9. Preservation of Nature
  10. Encourage community input and participation

The importance of place and placemaking is more evident now more than ever. The new knowledge economy is more mobile than ever, especially due to the internet and high speed travel.  Place doesn’t matter when it comes to online collaboration, but it matters immensely when a company or firm is considering relocation.  If a company that relies on the knowledge economy can be based anywhere why wouldn’t they want to be somewhere nice and beautiful, with a high quality of living?  Cities need to concentrate on placemaking and giving the knowledge economy somewhere they want to be rather than have to be.

G.K. Chesterfield wrote, “Rome may be loved because it is great, but it is great because it was loved.”  This emphasizes the need for cities and places to have TLC from their elected officials and community.  Only when a place is loved first, shown some TLC, can a place begin to become great.  This is the main reason many developments that do not take into account the city and community around them do not add to the place, because they do not love, or add to, the place.

A memorable quote from Norris was, “Avoid Ego-driven mega projects.”  Many cities feel that if they could just get that convention center built, attract that lifestyle center, or build a new stadium, they will then be great.  But, cities must remember there is no silver bullet in making a place great.  Creating a place requires much more than a gimmick or being able to point at one thing.  The best places in this country have multiple reasons they are great but at the same time you cannot pick one thing out that is the greatest.  Norris also stated that it is time that cities stop saying “thou shall not” and start saying “thou shall”.  I agree, there is no reason a city shouldn’t be able to ask developers for what the city wants rather than relying on the private sector to magically read the city decision makers’ minds.  Now this isn’t to say that a city has the right to tell the developers what uses they want where, but instead what types of buildings and where those buildings should be, within stated limits.

This is where Form Based Code helps.  Traditional zoning regulates Use, Density, and Parking.  Form Based Codes take into account those three but also Design. Design is what really brings a city together and makes it memorable.  Norris gave a good example of multi-family housing and design.  Density can be done, and according to modern day codes this usually results in townhome communities or apartment complexes.  And though they may be dressed up, rarely score high on Visual Preference Surveys (VPS), with a shout out to a former Rutgers professor of mine Tony Nellesen, who invented the original VPS. He stated, “Density without design is objectionable.” Density isn’t the objective, design is the objective.  Multi-family units can be done right considering both density and design.  It always comes back to what it will look like.

As Form Based Code through the use of the Smart Code and Urban Transect become utilized more throughout the country, more municipalities will be willing to explore it.  Now that Smart Code is open source and modular, making it easier for cities to implement and personalize it, Form Base Code should become the type of planning for cities, nodes, and small area plans for the foreseeable future.

LED up the night

Friday, August 28th, 2009

Led LightCities and Counties in the United States spend over $1.3 billion a year to light up the night on public streets with over 13 million street lights (not including traffic signals). LED technology, which has been around since the 60′s but has gained a market share in the  lightbulb industry recently, has taken off.  LED lights last twice as long as high pressure sodium and over eight times longer than mercury vapor, both more typically found in street lights.  Power consumption is also considerably less in LED lights than conventional bulbs, often cutting power budgets in half.  On average it costs $800-$1000 a year to power one street light.  An LED light can do the same work for around $250.

Cities are getting wise to the savings, and though it means an upfront cost to change the electrical work and fixtures the lifetime savings is well worth the move.  Some cities are using stimulus money to fund these changes.  This would be a good use of stimulus money since it effects a cost savings for the municipality and lowers maintenance and replacement costs.  At a cost of about $2000 to retrofit a light the savings could pay for the change in less than four years.

As costs for electricity grow and cities attempt to reduce costs and their carbon footprints changing light fixtures and other energy consuming products will be necessary.  I hope the competition and recent breakthroughs in LED technology only lowers the costs more, and quickly.

Good Bonus Article: Columbia, Missouri and their street light issues

LED Lights

Crowdsourcing Part 2: Techniques & Examples

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Thank you for coming back for Part 2 on Crowdsourcing and public planning.  If you haven’t read Part 1, do so now so you know where I’m coming from.  In this post I am going to show some techniques that have worked for the handful of agencies that have tried this new method and give an few examples for you to browse.

To say that crowdsoucing a public document or plan is new would be an understatement.  This cutting edge technology has only been around for a few years.  The internet has made crowdsourcing available and easy to use.  Public opinion and expertise is invaluable to the planning process and has been tapped into in the past via surveys, questionnaires, and every planner’s favorite… charettes.  But the public doesn’t often feel as much a part of the process as they do a sounding board.  What crowdsourcing brings to the table is the chance for the public to be much more involved than even a charette.

The process is almost so simple that it’s difficult.  What is difficult is letting go of control of a project for a period of time and letting it organically evolve via the public’s input and learning how to decipher all the information that can be gathered.  There are a a few basic principals which should be followed:  I found these 12 examples from CoolTown Studios in Washington DC, one of the only private firms I have located that has a crowdsourcing methodology.

However, I believe the CoolTown model is almost too complex for what most towns need.  I believe the process should begin with a framework plan (first draft) that planners and/or consultants have created.  In this framework plan the expertise from the professionals should be included, government wish lists, and all the facts presented (population expectations, vacancy rates, and developable lands).  Then the public should be allowed to run with the plan both individually and as a group.  All ideas from the small to the lofty should be considered by the governing bodies.  As mentioned in my prior post, citizens know their specific street and neighborhood better than any planner or consultant for a town.  They may not have a future vision of the city as a whole, but they know where the problems lie in their neighborhoods.

Public participation is the most important factor to making crowdsoucing work and must be promoted early and often.  I believe crowdsourcing can be done without computers and technology, but the word must get out to get good participation.  Methods I have found useful are identifying the key community leaders early in the process and getting them involved and up to date.  These leaders can be HOA members, preachers, business leaders, and party leaders.  Also, getting the local papers interested in a positive way is a great tool.  The municipal website should promote the planning process in a clear manner with dates of meeting and locations easily identifiable.  If the community is small enough I would use postcards announcing the meetings well in advance.  Depending on the community, finding bi-lingual members of that community may be necessary to get turnout and gather ideas.  Finally shameless self promotion by the government and planning department is the best way to show enthusiasm and interest.  If the government leaders are serious and interested in planning the citizens should be too.

Getting input from outspoken and even timid individuals is easy compared to how all this data and input is deciphered.  Putting a second draft together while considering all the information that has been gathered is a daunting task, but the most important.  As mentioned earlier, all ideas should be considered and the community meeting should be able to help the planning department rank the importance of each idea.  This is where the bulk of staff and consulting time needs to be invested.  All edits to a plan should be marked up so the citizens can see what has been included and omitted from the original plan.

After the planning department has had time to compile a second draft another round of public meetings should be scheduled to gather more input and see if the recommendations set forth by all different communities are truly what the municipality wants.  This is also a junction which requires some special attention by the plan creators.  As CoolTown Studios mentions in their final step, a group must be critical of their own ideas to avoid groupthink or “thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas”. In order to avoid complacency the comprehensive plan process needs to be critical and the citizens need to be critical of all ideas, not just the planning department’s or other communities’, but their own as well.

Some examples of web-based crowdsourcing:

  • At the National Level Obama’s Urban Policy which was set up prior to his arriving in office to gather public opinions and rate them on importance.
  • The City of Austin has done a similar webpage to gather public opinion and rank the ideas.
  • Next Stop Design has an online contest to submit ideas for transit stops around the country and allow visitors to vote and comment on all designs.  Open source design has its own challenges and theories, I will not be discussing that here.
  • The Best example of internet urban planning and crowdsourcing has to be Pittsburgh’s Regional Integrated Transportation Plan.  With it’s own Wiki explaining the process and all parts of the plan they are very aggressively trying to get public input.  Each page of the Wiki has a discussion tab for the public to participate in.

Ideas for on the ground planning to include those groups that cannot be reached by the internet.  I must admit, it was much easier finding examples of web based urban planning crowdsourcing vs. real world examples, here are a few:

  • The City of New Orleans has a year long approach to their 20 year master plan, however concerns over a top-down approach are not being addressed.  My own opinions aside on the rebuilding of a city in a clear hazard area, NOLA has done a good job getting the public voice heard, now can they implement it?
  • Grays Harbor County, WA has put community involvement at the top of the priority list for their 2020 Vision Plan, as well as improving social and community networks.
  • Moscow, ID had an aggressive community outreach schedule for 7 local meetings to gather information and the final draft is open for comment, modification, and input online.

Thank you for reading the series on crowdsourcing, as more information becomes available this is definitely a topic I want to elaborate on and bring into my next job, I really believe it is the future of community visioning and comprehensive planning.   I would love to hear from you if you have some examples or other takes on crowdsourcing in the public realm, just leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

Crowdsourcing: The ultimate in public participation.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009


Almost every city, county, and region within the United States has a comprehensive plan.  A comprehensive plan is usually a conglomeration of many months, sometimes years, of fact gathering, public polling, meetings, and eventually political review (and influence) before it is adopted (click here for a good explanation of what comprehensive planning is).  This plan typically lays out where the municipality sees themselves in 5-30 years and sometimes further.  Issues like land use patterns, future public capital expenditures, water/sewer expansion, and road improvements are discussed.  Some of the suggestions are realistic while others are wishes.  I believe the most important aspect of the comprehensive planning process is the public participation, after all, the citizens are the ones who have to live with, and pay for, the scenarios laid out within the plan.

In the past and almost everywhere currently the public process ranges from a public meeting or two at the municipal building to massive outreach campaigns that attempt to get public input from all sectors of a community through mailings, websites, and meetings.  Most often a presentation with flashy graphics and pictures is given by the planning department or hired planning consultants.  After the presentation, public opinion can be collected, but too often the plans are already setting like concrete and little can be done to make any significant change.  Here is where crowdsourcing can come in.

Crowdsourcing is the process of letting societies, in this case a municipality or community, make changes to a document or plan until, by silent consensus, the plan is considered complete.  As an example, Wikipedia is a completely crowdsourced website where the definitions and articles are created, edited, and agreed upon by users, even anonymous ones, until fewer and fewer edits and changes to an article happen and the definition is considered, by the majority, acceptable.  It is assumed that the public has certain non-expert knowledge that may not be thought about within the confines of planning or engineering.

Though it may be radical, especially to politicians and planning directors that like more control, crowdsourcing almost assures that the public voice is heard, and satisfied by the results, since they had a large part in creating the plan.  Now, I don’t believe the average citizen is capable of creating a base comprehensive plan, but if a planning department or consulting firm has created a framework, or initial plan, to allow the public to then edit the plan as they see fit, a more perfect document can then be created.  Perfect in this case means publicly acceptable.  This is probably one of the biggest issues of comprehensive plans is that the public does not feel their voice or opinions have been heard or respected and the plan was rushed through just to get it done.  It is time to embraced the fact that the public has the ultimate knowledge of their spaces and their voices should be heard, this we call democracy.

There are a few issues which arise due to crowdsourcing a public document.  In some communities there are silent minority groups. This can be an issue when the majority of a municipality would consider one option but the minority groups would consider another option.  This can, and should, be discovered by giving different regions different plans to work on individually and the planning department can interpret the differences to come up with the best scenario for all groups.  Equal access to computers and technology can also affect the results of crowdsouring within a municipality.  There are other options that don’t rely on the internet to crowdsource a plan, I will explore those options later this week.

As technology, computer access, and education improve crowdsourcing will become a more acceptable and useful public approach to comprehensive, small area, and redevelopment planning.  Of course, in the end, the facts and expertise that planners and engineers bring to the plan has to be included, but the public input will be much more involved in the process than they can be now and produce greater results than current methodology.

Join me later this week for Part 2, as I discuss how crowdsourcing can be introduced into plan making, where it has been used, and what resulted.